This is the story of one skeptic’s experience in the Landmark Forum. The story is intended to be of benefit primarily to those who are interested in the Forum and would like to know what the experience was like for one particular participant: me. My experiences are not representative of other people’s experience, but simply my own. There are many other websites out there that include articles and information on the experiences that others who attended the Forum have had.
Information about the Forum is not easy to come by. The Forum is the successor to the Erhard Seminar Training (popularly known as “est”) that began in 1971 and continued through 1984. The Erhard Seminar Training was developed by Werner Erhard (born Jack Rosenberg). The est training was very controversial in its day, and Erhard made some powerful enemies. He was investigated for tax fraud by the Internal Revenue Service in a case that he eventually won, and more significantly, he was accused of sexual abuse by one of his daughters. That accusation was later recanted. He was also the target of investigations by the Church of Scientology, who collected “filing cabinets” worth of material on him to be used in a media blitz to discredit him, as the hierarchy of the church apparently saw him as a rival and believed that he had “stolen” some of their ideas. Erhard was involved in other litigation as well, including cases where he attempted to prove that he had been slandered by various news sources. In any case, after his brother, Harry Rosenberg, and others, purchased his intellectual property and formed Landmark Education, it appears that they have tried to keep a much lower public profile in order to avoid being the target of the same kind of campaign that Erhard found himself the subject of.
In fact, Landmark keeps such a low profile that there is no biography of CEO Harry Rosenberg available on its website, or even an entry for him in Wikipedia. Even so, the occasional magazine article does come out relative to some journalist’s experience at the Forum, which can cause the disapprobation of the Forum’s leadership and legal team. Landmark is also known to be aggressively litigious, and has sued various magazines for slander. So, to be clear, this is an opinion piece. It simply represents my experience at the Forum. In addition, the news isn’t all bad: my opinion is decidedly bifurcated, as there were things about the experience that I liked and things that I didn’t like.
I went to the Forum with my former partner in September of 2004. She had previously done the “est” training about 20 years ago and found it to be a worthwhile experience. What convinced me to try the Forum is a conversation with a couple, both professional psychologists, who were the friends and employers of my former partner. These were people that I trusted and respected. They didn’t tell me I “had” to go to the Forum, just that “there might be some things available for me” there. Before committing to try the Forum, I tried to educate myself a little bit. Since there was a paucity of materials relative to the Forum or Landmark Education, I turned to its predecessor, est and Werner Erhard. So, I read two books on Erhard, including William Warren Bartley’s 1978 biography, “Werner Erhard: the Transformation of a Man, the Founding of est,” and Jane Self’s 1992 book, “60 Minutes and the Assassination of Werner Erhard: How America’s Top Rated Television Show Was Used in an Attempt to Destroy a Man Who Was Making a Difference.” (The title of that one speaks for itself.) What those two books convinced me of is that Erhard is without a doubt a fascinating man who integrated many different resources into what became the “est” training. He also wasn’t half bad at marketing.
Before I went, I attended a “Special Evening,” an event specifically designed for potential Forum attendees. One normally attends at the invitation (and in the company) of someone who has already graduated from the Forum. At this evening, one of the things that happens is that Forum graduates get up and tell stories about their involvement with Landmark and how the experience has changed them. These are essentially “in person” testimonials. I have to say, I was very impressed by the people who get up and what they have to say. There was, for example, a reclusive artist who “got back” her family and allowed herself to become an exhibiting artist. There was a man who talked to his incarcerated father for the first time in a dozen years; a woman whose marriage was on the verge of a breakup until she realized that she had made her husband “small” throughout her marriage; there was a woman who got up and said that she had been released from anxiety and just felt much more “peaceful” than she ever had before; there was another woman who told us that she had a huge release of muscle tension in her hips and lower back after years of going to various kinds of alternative healers for her back pain, without any previous success.
After I came back from the Forum I did some additional research, most of it related to the experience of other people who had taken the est training. That included buying and reading Carl Fredrick’s “est: Playing the Game the New Way” and Adelaide Bry’s “est: 60 Hours that Transform your Life.” The first book wasn’t useful at all, but the second one was definitely instructive, both in reinforcing some of the messages from the training, but also in pointing out some of the ways that est has changed in the years of its evolution from what Erhard created to what is now the Forum. Finally, I also purchased Landmark’s “The Relationship Course” because I was curious as to what Landmark had to teach about relationships.
The original course, the “est Standard Training,” was an intensive two-weekend 60 hour course that promised nothing less than to “transform one’s ability to experience living.” The course was, according to one commentator, a “hodgepodge of philosophical bits and pieces culled from existential philosophy, motivational psychology, Maxwell Maltz’s psycho-cybernetics, Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts, Freud, Abraham Maslow, Hinduism, Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale.” It was famous for its long hours, lack of bathroom breaks, and the abusive way in which trainers often treated the customers. In 1984 Erhard sold the company to a group led by his brother, Harry Rosenberg, which eventually became incorporated as Landmark Education. By the time I attended the program with my former partner in 2004, the program had been reduced to 40 hours over one three-day weekend, plus an evening session tacked on. The program had also been refined; bathroom breaks were no longer restricted; trainers were no longer abusive (albeit occasionally still very challenging); but the essential elements of the program were still intact. (My partner had attended one of the original est trainings, so she was in a position to compare.)
But enough with the preliminaries: let’s talk about the experience itself. Our seminar was held in downtown Quincy, Massachusetts in a rather charmless and nondescript conference room in a building owned by Landmark Education. The seminar included about 100 people. Training occurred on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, plus a “graduation” on the subsequent Tuesday evening. The training day was very long – starting at 9:00 in the morning and not finishing until somewhere between 10:30 and 11:30 at night. The schedule included two 30 minute meal breaks at around 11:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and one 90 minute dinner break usually around 6:00 p.m. There was no time to rest or relax, as seminar participants had assignments during all these breaks that keep them busy.
What the Forum promises is not just “change” but “transformation,” as well as a “new realm of possibility.” What it actually delivers is a curriculum that may leave some people feeling transformed, some confused, and will simply provide them with additional tools and techniques for living their lives more fully. That result should not be trivialized; while it may not be the Utopian promise that the Forum makes, it can still be well worth the $395 price of the introductory course for many of the untransformed.
The vocabulary used at the Forum is very specific, and there are a number of terms that take on a very specific meaning, different from ordinary usage. This is expressly acknowledged on the Forum website itself. Some of these specific terms include words and phrases such as “possibility,” “inauthenticity,” “transformation,” and even the word “distinction.” Landmark uses very existential philosophical concepts, some grounded in Zen Buddhism, that at times appear to be completely inscrutable. This is a direct inheritance from Werner Erhard and the “est” training, which established this philosophical foundation. Some of this does have the flavor of double-speak, which become clearer when you purchase a CD and have more time to listen to it. Be aware that if you attend the Forum, there will be times where you will have no idea what the Forum leader is talking about.
In this article, I can’t tell you exactly what Landmark actually teaches. I can’t tell you, not because it couldn’t be told — don’t believe the fiction that what the Forum teaches can’t be explained — but because it would be a violation of their copyrights, to which Landmark Education is entitled, and which I promised not to disclose. When I signed up, like everyone who signs up, I gave them my word that I would keep their “technology” confidential. Also, the Forum doesn’t directly allow you to take notes, so I wasn’t able to write down the details that I normally would when attending a workshop like this. If you do want an explanation — like I did before I came — Landmark does publish the Syllabus for the Forum on their own website.
Our particularly iteration of the Forum was led by Jerry Burkhard, a boyish and (then) 41 year old former hotel and restaurant manager who has been leading Forum workshops for about eight years. He’s never been married before, but he’s engaged to someone and couldn’t be happier about it, or so he says. The Forum gets off to a pretty slow start, and it’s clear that for long stretches of time, Burkhard is essentially reading out of a manual. Still, he tells us that we should not miss a minute of the presentation because it all builds on itself. So, while you can take bathroom breaks, don’t make them too long.
The intensity of the Forum is offset by long periods of tediousness and boredom where nothing at all seems to be happening for long stretches of time. Again, it takes the Forum quite a while to get going, and a lot of the first day is spent just being introduced to what the Forum is about to do for us. After the first day Burkhard told us that we had only done 5% of the forum; after the second day it was maybe 25%, and all the rest was to be done on the third day. A lot of the time in-between is spent on the Forum congratulating itself and the Forum Leader letting you know what other courses and workshops are available through Landmark Education.
The Forum demands of participants that they be “brutally honest” about themselves in identifying the ways that we “blame other people for the things we are dissatisfied with in our own lives.” Many of us have a searing need to make other people “wrong” and to defend our own need to be “right,” or so we are told. While this is not a unique insight, Burkhard was quite good in his ability to coax, to challenge, to redirect, and ultimately, to get people to drop pretenses that they have about themselves.Especially people eager to get to the microphone and to prove to everyone how much they were “getting it” already. These were the moments when the Forum came alive. These were the moments where the Forum became more interesting to sit through.
In these public sessions there were a few people who came to realize that not only were they not necessarily victimized by the other people in their lives, but that they themselves had been the cause of a small trail of destruction in which they had left several people devastated in their wake; others became clear about the degree to which they still cared for some relative or friend with whom they had essentially severed relations; others still could be seen struggling with the meaning of profound and dramatic events from their own personal histories. These insights led to the phone calls for which Landmark attendees are rightly famous, where they call some unsuspecting friend, relative or ex-lover to apologize for the “racket” they have been running on them and to take ownership of whatever story they had created about their history together. These phone calls often end with a declaration of love and a request for the recipient to join the caller at a forum event, often leaving the recipient of the phone call alternatively confused or profoundly moved. Or both.
Landmark makes a point of emphasizing that the Forum is “not therapy,” although it clearly is intended to produce therapeutic results. In practice it sometimes felt like a cross between an existentialism seminar and large scale cognitive group therapy. Part of the reason for insisting that the Forum is not therapy probably has to do with legal consequences; otherwise the Forum leaders, who are not therapists, would be “practicing therapy without a license.”
The Forum also promotes the notion of “integrity,” which means honoring your word and keeping whatever commitment you’ve made to somebody else. When it comes to repairing a relationship in which you’ve been blaming somebody else, the Forum encourages you to repair it right now, while you’re still in the Forum, while the Forum leaders can still “coach” you through the experience. The same thing holds true with respect to inviting others to come participate in the Forum. Enrolling others in Forum courses is an act that participants are very strongly encouraged to do now, while the Forum is still in progress. This, again, leads to those infamous telephone calls.
This brings me to my chief complaint with the Forum, and that has to do with the way it is marketed, or rather, the way it markets itself. The marketing involves “collapsing” whatever sense of transformation participants have experienced with selling the Forum to other potential participants. Landmark has chosen to market itself exclusively through word of mouth, especially by getting participants who are in the “heat of the moment” to recommend Landmark to someone else. It’s like a sales pitch at a time share presentation: get it while it’s hot! This clearly works much more effectively for them than advertising on television or in magazines. The Landmark Forum leaders will make the argument that if you’ve been “transformed” by your experience in the Forum, why wouldn’t you want others in your life to have that experience as well? Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah. It’s a hot sale. They know it’s a hot sale. It’s no accident that Werner Erhard, who created the operating principles, was a marketing wizard.
A good therapist, for example, may also “transform” the life of one of their patients, and yet the therapist doesn’t troll for clients in the middle of a therapy session. A good therapist doesn’t ask you to refer clients while you’re still a client.
Not only is there a hard sell for new recruits while you’re in the Forum, there is, of course, a hard sell for continuing the Landmark programs. At my Forum “graduation” about half the graduates enrolled in the $595 Advanced course ($795 if you don’t register in the first week after graduation), and many of them will presumably also enroll in the Self Expression and Leadership program, and thus complete the entire “Curriculum for Living.” That suggests that about half of the program participants felt sufficiently motivated to make it worth their while to enroll.
Like a good politician, the Forum stays relentlessly “on message.” All the Forum leaders have heard every possible objection to what they teach and every possible objection as to why you should not enroll your friends and family in the Forum today. They have well rehearsed answers to all of these objections.
The Forum leaders rarely stop for unplanned questions, but build the “momentum” of the Forum through a very carefully designed script in which they are often reading directly from a manual. They intersperse this script with personal stories and with the ubiquitous exercises in sharing that characterize the Forum experience. Much of that sharing is genuinely moving as one observes the participants alternately struggling and sometime succeeding with their own attempts at transformation. It also creates its own momentum, of course, as participants are directed to share the results of their actions and are coached by the Forum leader when either action has not been taken or action has not produced results. After all, if everyone else has gotten it, if everyone else has “popped like popcorn,” the rest of us think that we have not “popped” that somehow we have failed. If everyone else is taking action, registering their family, registering their friends, and registering themselves, those of us refusing to do so can feel like there must be something wrong with us. It is this relentless momentum coupled with the hard sell and the use of participants as the sales force for Landmark Education that can give the whole thing a cultish feel. Landmark is not a cult, in my opinion. But it sure is a hard sell.
I wouldn’t even begrudge them their hard sell but for one thing: it completely lacks integrity. For an organization where integrity is one of the core concepts that they preach, this end run around it feels completely hypocritical. In my view, they are simply not being completely honest about their intentions. That is not “acting with integrity” in my personal lexicography.
The Commitment Seminar
My commitment to the “Commitment Seminar” is flagging, and it’s only the third installment of a ten week course. Graduates of the Forum, it turns out, are all entitled to participate in a series of ten week seminars offered through Landmark Education. The first of these seminars is free. Other seminars are $100, and a few of these require, as a prerequisite, participation in an earlier seminar. Topics include such subjects as Commitment, Sex and Intimacy, Fitness, Money, Creativity, Relationships, Being Extraordinary, and a series on Producing Breakthrough Results. The seminar that my partner and I have chosen is the “Commitment” seminar, because it meets on Monday nights instead of Wednesday nights, and it’s pretty much the only one that she and I can attend together.
The Seminar series is run by Seminar Leaders. These folks are not as gifted as the Forum Leaders themselves, but are still extensively trained Landmark graduates who typically have done all of the advanced courses as well as a number (if not all) of the seminar series. Our guy is Brett. We get off to an rocky start with Brett because of a situation that arose at work: it turned out that I was supposed to be on a flight to Chicago that I thought I was not supposed to be on, but I didn’t find that out until three hours before the flight. It’s the same Monday as the date of the first Seminar, and we had been informed that we must attend the first one.
As instructed, I called Landmark to notify Brett, get him on the phone, and this leads to a circular discussion without any resolution. Brett suggests at one point that if I was really committed to the Seminar I would rebook the flight for Tuesday morning at 6:00 a.m., even though that would cost me almost as much as the Forum itself. A few more conversations with the Center Manager and the Participation Manager and Brett, and it’s agreed that I can continue with the Seminar even having missed the first session. In addition, I’m assigned to a group of about a half-dozen participants, each with a group leader. Everyone in the Seminar is assigned to these groups, in part as a way to help people keep their commitments.
Having finally worked out the details, I attend my Commitment Seminar and find myself to have, once again, a bifurcated reaction to what Landmark has to teach. On the one hand, what they teach can be powerful: in the Seminar, it is teaching about the power of giving and keeping your word. On the other hand, I’m put off, once again, by the blatant integration of marketing in the content of the course itself. In conversations with fellow participants, I find that many of them are put off by this as well.
But there is something else that is putting me off, and it has to do with what Landmark Brett is teaching in the Commitment Seminar. At the Seminar, we are introduced to the notion that we’re not actually committed to the things we say we’re committed to (okay, I’ll buy that) and that we instead devoted to all kinds of “hidden and undeclared commitments.” Commitments like wanting to do things our own way, to being mediocre, to proving that we’re not good enough (I’ll buy some of that). Underneath those commitments are even more cynical commitments, in what seems like a never-ending circle. It’s an onion, peeled layer by layer, that has no core. The participants are required to uncover these cynical commitments and share them with a partner. I’m having more and more trouble buying this. Are people really committed to mediocrity? Are they really committed to proving their not good enough? Or are their simply obstacles (insecurities, a lack of faith in ones self, the previous experience of failure) which inhibit the commitments we were intending to keep? The sense that I’m getting — and my partner is getting this same sense — is that Brett seems to be suggesting that our lives were a complete sham before we came to Landmark and that only Landmark can be our salvation. I’m not buying it anymore.
Finally, at the third session Brett says something which causes me to fall off the Landmark bandwagon entirely. What he says is this: those of us who are concerned about the way Landmark does its marketing (and apparently there are a number of us who have mentioned this to him) are all “committed to being resigned and cynical.” Say What? There is no causal nexus between objecting to how Landmark intertwines the marketing of their courses into the courses themselves and being committed to cynicism or resignation. The only thing I’m cynical about at the moment is Landmark’s way of marketing themselves.
I stopped attending my Commitment Seminar after that, even though I would occasionally hear from my Group Leader. She was really very nice, and encouraged me to keep coming. She kept reminding me that it was “my” seminar. She asked me to “try things on.” I tried, but they didn’t fit. Finally, to my surprise, after the Seminar was over, I heard from Brett again. He wanted to know why I stopped attending the Seminar. An unusually high number of people dropped out, and he’s concerned whether there was something that he’s been doing wrong. He’s not at fault, I don’t believe. He’s just toting the party line. It’s not what he said but how Landmark behaved that made me drop out of the Seminar. I can’t speak for why others dropped out. In any case, we have a longer conversation, over an hour, which is much more satisfying than any he and I have had before.
The Relationship CD
At some point after the Forum was over and before the Commitment Seminar had expired, I decided to purchase Relationships: Love, Intimacy & Freedom, a CD that was available at that time on the Landmark website. I wanted to get the CD for two reasons: first, I was curious as to what Landmark had to say about relationships, and second, I wanted to see what it would be like to listen to Landmark material away from the “hot ” we’re-at-a-timeshare-sales-pitch atmosphere that seemed to be part and parcel of any Landmark live event.
The CD is “hosted” by by Steve Zaffron and Nancy Zapolski, two senior leaders at the Forum. It is the audio recording of several sessions which they were conducting with a group of participants. You can hear both the leaders and various unnamed participants in a session which is typical of what happens at the Forum, only with a particular focus on relationships. Listening to the CD would give a someone a bit of a sense for what the Forum and other Landmark-sponsored workshops “feel” like.
I was interested to see what the folks at Landmark would reveal as the secret to being in relationship. The upshot, as much as I could discern one, was that the secret was “to be related.”
Not Earth-shattering news exactly. What became clear to me as I could listen to the CD a few times is that there is a kind of “double speak” that pervades Landmark, that promises a big delivery but often doesn’t deliver all that much. At various points in the introductory Forum, the folks at Landmark promises not only to deliver to us things we didn’t know, but to deliver the things we didn’t even know we didn’t know. That’s an oversell. The Forum does deliver some interesting things, but not that much.
A Cautionary Tale
There is a cautionary tale for me in the experiences of one particular couple, this being the couple that had first suggested that my former partner and I attend the Landmark Forum. Again, this was a professional couple, both of them psychologists. They had put together a consulting business, where they were going to advise other people who were simultaneously in business and in a family situation. Husbands and wives in business together. Fathers and sons. Brothers with each other. The Demoulas brothers could have used their advice. They were also going to write a book for this same audience of people, and I even hooked them up with a power couple that I knew whom they would be able to interview. However, the book kept changing in size and grandiosity. From being in a defined niche, they wanted to start writing about leadership in general — which would have put them on a collision course with all the thousands of other “coaches” out there who are writing about leadership — instead of staying within their defined area of expertise. After much Sturm und Drang a book was finally written, by which time they had lost my friends as one of the interview subjects. In the end, it was much closer to its original intent after having wandered far afield.
So, I don’t know: maybe this couple never would have formed a consulting partnership and never would have written a book if they had not attended the Forum. But at some point it was clear that they had also been infected with the grandiosity of their own ideas. The Forum seemed to have imbibed them with the idea that anything was possible. But anything is not possible. Lots of things are possible, and some of them verge on the miraculous. But you can’t be running at a sprint all the time. If you run a marathon you have to run at a reasonable pace. Around the Forum, I had the distinct impression that people were encouraged to believe that they could run at a sprint all the time, that there were no limits to anyone’s possibilities. And that just isn’t so. Optimism is great, it’s inspiring, but optimism does need to be tempered with a little bit or realism. It’s the untempered belief that anything is possible that has led so many people down the rabbit hole of network marketing, or gave Bernie Madoff so many clients who should have known better.
Is the Forum Effective?
After attending the Forum and considering the question, I’m of a mixed mind as to how effective large group awareness trainings (LGATs) like the Forum really are. Clearly, they have something to offer, or they wouldn’t be as successful as they are. And Landmark Education is, to be sure, a very successful company. I do think that you can learn at least three things at the Forum:
– First, you can rewrite your own life story, especially if you’ve been using it as a justification for certain habits. If, for example, you believe that you can’t stay in a relationship because your parents had a nasty divorce, than the Forum is a place to rewrite that story. (It’s not true, by the way. That’s not why you can’t stay in a relationship).
– Second, I think you can learn about the power of taking action now. The Forum is very much directed to taking action immediately and without delay, and that’s clearly a good habit to get into.
– Third, and on a related note, you can learn a lot about keeping your word. The Forum is a little bit obsessive about making sure that everyone is keeping their word. That can also make some of us a little more cautious about giving our word, because not everything in our lives needs to be an iron-clad commitment.
On the other hand, there has been very little research done on the long-term effectiveness of large group awareness trainings. For one thing, groups like Landmark Education do not encourage independent research. They would rather just rely on their own testimonials. With the limited research that is available, what appears to be the case is that LGAT trainings can often given participants a powerful short-terms sense of belonging and of revelation. These programs can be very successful in breaking down longstanding defenses, in breaking through certain psychological barriers, and giving participants a sense of transformation. Of course, if you do have a breakdown, there isn’t necessarily anyone with the skill and attention to help you put yourself back together again. Some — although not many — participants in LGAT trainings have had psychotic breaks, occasionally leading to litigation. One notable distinction between traditional therapy and an LGAT, is that participating in an LGAT normally involves waiving any and all legal rights prior to participation, something which never happens in traditional therapy.
In addition, whether these positive phenomenon last is open to debate. Many participants, finding themselves bowled over by the power of the experience, sign up for a string of successor courses, often at a very substantial cost. Repetition can solidify the lessons learned at the initial training, of course, but old habits are hard to break. I’ve met many graduates of large group awareness trainings who don’t seem to be any more self-actualized than before they started. But then we never know what’s going on inside.
The flip side of that coin is the concern, actively expressed by many critics of large group awareness trainings, that these have much in common with cults. And there are certain disturbing commonalities. Many of them are 12 or 14 hour workshops that encourage a certain amount of sleep-deprivation. There tends to be a very active message relative to how wonderful or powerful the workshop is, with active encouragement to get participants to testify to the same. Many of these workshop are actively hostile to any kind of criticism and work hard to direct anyone who happens to go off-message. Many workshops propose that they are the only solution to your life, the only way that you can transform, the only thing that will make your life fulfilling. The Forum is certainly guilty of promoting this message.
I think my best advice to anyone considering the Forum or a similar large group awareness training is to try it if the idea appeals to them, but to go in with the resolution that you’re not going to sign up for additional courses immediately. Let the experience settle. Trust me when I tell you these opportunities will not disappear. If, three months from now, you’re still burning with desire to take a follow-up, then by all means go ahead and do it. Do it in the clear light of day, not at the peak of emotional arousal.